Opera and Ballet – A happy pairing?

In every opera house across the world, a ballet company and an opera company share one roof. World-class opera singers and ballet dancers brush past each other in backstage labyrinths, and jostle for precious time on the stage. The host of backstage crew and administrators are as segregated as the performers, and the idea of a co-production seems well in the realms of fantasy. I’m sure we can all reel off a list of opera productions with bits of ballet and vice versa, but what about productions where equal importance is given to dancing and singing – an ‘opera-ballet’? Is it the fault of composers that keep opera and ballet companies as bickering couples in royal houses?

Opera and ballet are, in most cases, performed on stage with a set, in costume and accompanied by an orchestra. And that’s it. In almost every other respect they couldn’t be more different, with contrasting rehearsal processes, performance practices and technical language. Perhaps most fundamentally, singers sing and dancers dance, so fusing two methods of communication in an effective narrative is anything but easy. But this hasn’t put all composers off.

Ballet grew from opera in the French Baroque with thanks to Lully, who was an excellent dancer as well as composer, until he unfortunately struck his foot with his conducting staff, got gangrene and died (you can see why conductors prefer baton’s now!). Rameau was also a big advocate of Opéra-Ballet as it was called then, with works such as Les Indes galantes and Les fêtes d’Hébé. This era was sadly short-lived and few took interest in opera-ballet for centuries. It was Stravinsky who picked up the mantle in the 20th century with works such as Les Noces, Pulcinella and Renard. His approach was very different, placing singers in the pit amongst the orchestra, rather than on stage with the dancers. Does this make it an opera-ballet? I think Stravinsky certainly wasn’t sure how to categorise them, choosing instead to go for ‘dance cantanta’; ‘a tale sung and played’ or simply ‘ballet’. Many other composers in the 20th and 21st century have had a stab, such as Philip Glass’s Les Enfants Terribles, a ‘dance opera’, Vaughan William’s Epithalamion, a ‘masque’ and Oliver Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are a ‘fantasy opera/ballet’. I have also had a go myself with Sideshows, settling with Lully’s term ‘opera-ballet’ – https://www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/2017/constella-operaballet-sideshows-/ Personally, I feel that the fusion of opera and ballet is hugely exciting. It has its problems but when it works – it’s a spectacle for the eyes and ears!

Thankfully, some opera houses agree, and recently it has been interesting to see companies taking the plunge and joining forces in the commissioning of imaginative adaptations of otherwise straight opera and ballet works. For example, I was particularly taken with The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet’s production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUP5UNML10k. This approach would obviously not work for every piece, but it shows that there is heaps of potential.

Has contemporary opera gone as far as it can go? Can modern ballet compete with contemporary dance? Perhaps it’s time to put heads together and unleash the dormant ‘opera-ballet’!